Damned if our guys can figure it out and naturally, it’s the one bit of defence we’re stuck on… we’re thinking it might be from Amtino’s time, so I hope you’ve got some Ancestral tech know-how…

“Amtino… I’ve heard that name before. Back at the barracks. Lessinger mentioned him.”

Kaire stepped gracefully over a chunk of broken pillar. “The Evinthei are afraid of Amtino’s memory. They tell their young that his time was one of tyranny so evil it nearly killed them all, that Jayton Ember rode in on a white horse to clean it up. But that isn’t strictly true. Amtino was just a man, in a position that meant his mistakes were very far-reaching.”

She walked on. “Amtino’s writings were destroyed after his death, which is a shame. He must have had a remarkable mind to withstand the presence of the Great Maw. Most humans would have been driven away in hours. But Amtino walked the deadlands for months while the debate over the city defences raged on, returning home only to eat and sleep and then to go back once more. He had loyal followers who tried to dissuade him and asked him to remain in the city, to guide his people. But Amtino refused. He said he was simply considering the problem and needed time alone, partly to grieve for his mate. And he seemed to snap out of his depression eventually. He ordered a meeting of the people’s assembly and claimed it was time to end the debate, for the sake of the city.”

“Good for him,” said Dax.

Kaire smiled thinly. “At the assembly, Amtino didn’t even have to call for silence. Everyone was waiting to hear what he had to say, trusting their leader to have an answer. In front of thousands upon thousands of people, Ormian Amtino, the great thinker and administrator, stood up and opened his speech with a statement that Nones was not human territory. Their very presence was blasphemous. He said that those who supported the use of Ancestral technology had tainted the relics left behind, but their sins were minimal compared to those who had added new machines to the city. The new defences were an insult to the Ancestors who had built Nones and armed her so thoroughly. He said that to show they were strong and worthy of Nones, all those who had contributed to the human defence grid, and claimed they should dismantle the Ancestral defences, were to be put to death as a sacrifice.”

Dax gasped. “You’re joking. He really said that?”

“He really said that.”

“But they didn’t - I mean, no one would have let him -”

“He was still the city’s leader,” said Kaire softly. “Only his closest followers knew he had been into the deadlands and that the Great Maw might have driven him mad. And they didn’t dare say a word against him in case he decided they were ‘blasphemers’ too. The populace just assumed this was what he had decided after contemplating the situation for so long. After all, wasn’t he the city’s patriarch? Would he really do such a thing unless it was absolutely necessary?

“Amtino had twenty members of his inner cabinet killed, publicly and… quite bloodily. But their surviving supporters began to rise up against Amtino and protested. Several of them were killed as well, and the populace began to see what was happening. The city was already divided, and this was the spark to the… powderkeg, is that the correct word? Fighting broke out between Amtino’s followers and the ‘human rearmament initiative’, the HRI. Amtino’s people were concerned with disabling human defences that had been created and adding Ancestor-inspired technology to the city - like that door you encountered under the barracks. The HRI tried to defend their armaments and sabotaged the Ancestral defences to prove they weren’t invincible, to antagonise Amtino’s people.

“The fighting in the streets was messy but not as bad as the sabotage. At any moment, any street could be attacked by either side. Buildings were rigged with explosives and destroyed. A heavy magazine along the river was blown up and took a main river anchorage with it.” She sniffed. “Both sides were stupid, if you ask me. They were destroying good defences either way, trying to fight an idea rather than just killing each other.”

“What happened to Ormian Amtino? Was he killed in the fighting?”

“He left his lieutenant to co-ordinate most of the attacks, and continued to walk in the deadlands,” said Kaire. “None of his followers could accompany him so I suppose we’ll never know just what he was doing out there. But somehow whenever he returned, he always had an idea of where the HRI was going to strike next. His followers believed he was following some kind of battle plan, but if he was, he never confided it to anyone. Finally the HRI captured and tortured his lieutenant, and discovered where Amtino was going. They set an ambush as he left the deadlands and assassinated him. But the HRI made a fatal mistake. They threw Amtino’s corpse in the river rather than putting the body on display.”

“On display?” Dax asked, appalled.

“Naturally,” said Kaire, sounding surprised. “Even Jayton Ember knew the value of making a successful hunt into a public spectacle. He put up the heads of his Earthborn kills in the boulevards of Nones so people would see their enemy for what they were, so they would know something was being done. Because the HRI didn’t have a corpse to prove Amtino had died, and because he was known to vanish for long periods of time, his followers didn’t believe the reports of his murder and they kept up their assault, thinking their leader could reappear any day. If the HRI had only had the good sense to string Amtino up from one of the towers, their enemy would have been demoralised and surrendered within a week. As it was, the fighting only ended when one of the most important buildings in Nones was destroyed.”

Dax remembered Athellus telling him about these times back at the Chapel. “That was the Archive.”

“Yes. The Archive had held most of Nones’ technical data, census reports, records, everything, and the computers there regulated all the city’s systems - water, power, aeroponics. It’s not clear which side destroyed the Archive, even now. It could have been the HRI; some think Amtino’s people deliberately blew it up, even though it was Ancestral, to stop the HRI from getting their hands on it. That seems likely to me, given how fanatical they were. But without the Archive, people got cold and hungry very quickly. And the fighting stopped not long after that. People don’t fight if they’re hungry. Or at least they only fight for food.” Kaire shrugged. “Which I suppose proves my point. Whether they followed Amtino or HRI, it didn’t matter in the end. All their ‘right way or wrong way’ broke down in the face of their needs.”

They had walked a long way by now, and they were standing up at the crest of the skyway, looking down. Dax could see a sparkle in the distance, the river. Somewhere out there beyond the water was this Great Maw she had talked about, the last relic of a creature so powerful even death couldn’t silence it completely. He kept trying to picture it and failing, his imagination just wasn’t big enough. What would it be like to stand in front of it? Would he be driven away, like Athellus, or would he bear up under the pain like Ormian Amtino?

It figured, really. Everything else in this place was dangerous, even things that had been dead for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. But still - it would be something to see.

“What happens now the Evinthei know what we’re doing?” he asked, leaning on the wall beside her. “What do we do about the Generator Well?”

“I’ll see what Athellus comes up with,” said Kaire. “He’s better at strategy than me. I’d just as soon tear the Evinthei’s constructs down and leave it at that, but that would be… unhelpful. They might be foolish, but they are Athellus’ people. And they do a few things right.”

Like their medical training, Dax thought. Out here, with the city spread below, Kaire standing above him - an unconventional beauty, but still beautiful - he was suddenly very conscious of that thing in his head. He could almost feel his skull grow a little heavier, creaking with the need to accommodate the interloper.

He shivered. “I’m going back to bed. See you tomorrow.”

Kaire leaned forward as if she was about to dive off… then did a lazy handstand on the top of the wall, balancing perfectly. Upside down, with her hair in her eyes, she winked at him and then smiled. “I’m feeling nocturnal. You go. Sleep tight, Dax.”

Athellus was still sleeping like a log when Dax returned to their little camp. He lay for a while looking up at the sky, thinking. It wouldn’t be that long before dawn, but he could get a little more shut-eye in the meantime. His thoughts drifted back and forth, Kaire’s story and his own thoughts mingling sleepily. The last thing he thought of before he dozed off was the Librais Tower, only now its paleness was no longer from creamy stone, but smooth planes of bone stretching up into the sky.

 

 

 

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